27 November 2012

Reviewing the Reviewers’ Reviews. (Tuesday Talk)


The subject of “reviews” or rather, Amazon Comments, came up the other day. (I think on Facebook, can’t remember where.) The gist was: how useful are these Amazon reviews?

I personally take little notice of the 5 star and 1 star comments, the 5’s can often be “friends and family”, the 1’s are usually troll-ish rants. I look at the 4 stars first, and I  usually only award 4 stars for my own comments – the 5’s, as far as I’m concerned, are the outstanding novels that I will want to read again and again, my favourites, while the 4 stars are the darn good reads.

I will also state here that I am more than happy to get 4 star reviews for my books (though I do like the 5 stars! LOL)

Out of curiosity I decided to look at the reviews for my first novel The Kingmaking which I originally had accepted for publication nearly twenty years ago. Partly, I wish I hadn’t as the one star rants from the US “reviewers” are a bit hurtful, but I swallowed that down and read through objectively.


On Amazon.com  for this novel I’ve got (at time of writing this article) six 1 star comments and twenty-six 5 stars. In the UK I have seven 5’s  and one 4 – that’s all. (Hmm no trolls in the UK?) What struck me, though - outside of the fact that these people obviously did not like the book (fair enough, each to their own) -  was the uselessness of these lower star rants because most of these reviewers had completely missed the point about the novel: I deliberately set out to portray King Arthur as a non-Christian goody-goody, and to not stick to the more familiar traditional tales.

This seems to have been less understood in the US than the UK – perhaps UK readers are more open to change? I do also think that UK readers are not so squeamish about violence in historical fiction, be it on the battlefield or towards women. I have had American readers’ comments that state, “The battles were too realistic and descriptive.” While another comment could proclaim, “Hollick knows nothing of battles, she has no sense of what a real battle was like.” (Er… has anyone got a real idea of what battles in the Dark Ages were like?)

I have also found that American readers are not too keen on scenes of rape or the fact that women in the past were often wedded (and bedded) at twelve or thirteen years of age. Perhaps a UK reader’s perspective of history is more ingrained in us then some American readers?
UK readers also do not seem so bothered about the pedantics of whether a comma is in the right place or not, nor do we seem too affected by Point of View Changes. Is this because our use of English English is somewhat different from American English I wonder?

Here are a few examples of the differences of opinion:

“…We learn that Arthur isn't a great military leader, doesn't have much of a sense of honor, drinks a lot, and is a horrible womanizer.”

And

“Most frustrating for the reader with some knowledge of the Arthurian tradition is the way in which this tradition has been utterly abandoned, then replaced with nothing of real value. The spiritual Arthur, the chivalric Arthur, the noble Arthur, the sleeping Arthur whose legend inspires hope for the British people are all gone. In their place is a greedy warlord who aspires to little more than women, power, booze, and, did I mention, women?
The only saving grace in this story is that this Arthur is probably closer to the historical figure (if he actually existed) than most of the fictions we enjoy today. But beyond supposition, there's little evidence that establishes this version over those it seeks to replace. There's nothing gained by supplanting an inspiring fictional character with one who may be closer to the texture of the warlords who lived in fifth and sixth century Britain without, at least, some evidence that the new version is reasonably accurate.”

Or

“There is no legend here, no vision. Power and money alone don't last. Hollicks' Arthur is nothing but another petty warlord, no different from any of history's other petty, brutal, unremembered warlords. The kind of lord no person in their right mind would follow once the gold runs out. Of course it's the author's right to spin such a tale - however, it rather misses the point of the Arthurian legends altogether.”

These reviewers /commenters have missed the point that
a) I researched and used the early Welsh legends of Arthur – which depict him as a rough, tough, not very likeable warlord (yes, complete with hitting women!)
b) Have missed the point that the Dark Ages were not nice times. Women got raped. Men went drinking and whoring. That’s the nitty-gritty truth of history folks.



Other readers thought the complete opposite of the above. As in:

“I much prefer this "real" Arthur to the "fairy tale" Arthur. What I like about historical fiction is that the people you read about were actually living, breathing human beings and that makes it so much easier to relate to their shortcomings or concerns or emotions. The Kingmaking was a fabulous novel, hard to put down and now on my list of all-time favorites! Helen Hollick's writing is fantastic and I am very much looking forward to reading the next two in the series!”

And

“Helen Hollick has refused to be constrained by the stereotypical Arthur we all know through legend - and of course TV! She has created a very different man and we get to know him, his life and loves, warts and all. This Arthur is very human and not always the good guy. This is a fascinating book. I'm now reading the second one of the trilogy. It's great fun getting to know all the characters and learn about their lives in 5th Century Britain. Thanks Helen!”

And

“Personally I found the book very refreshing and forward looking, if that can be said about a book that covers a period of time well over a thousand years ago. It coincided closely with my own feelings on what the Arthurian period may have been like. The book was certainly a million miles away from the Hollywood image of the period.”


So  are these reviews a balanced blend of differing opinions, or biased rants bordering on being nasty because I have dared to depict Arthur in a different light than the more normal Christian almost saint-like king? Are the opposing views useful or not? I suppose it depends on how you personally think of Arthur, and the content of my novel. If you prefer the chivalric king who would shudder at even a mild swear-word – and a reader who abhors even a hint of violence against women, then no, my books are not for you.

I have actually received hate-mail from American readers who have been less than pleasant with their choice of (very rude) words because my Arthur is not a Christian. (Mail from Good Christian People, I might add. As a Pagan I don’t particularly mind being assigned to Hell or threatened by the wrath of God though; I don’t believe in Hell or God.)

As interesting are the opposing views of my writing. These vary from:

“…. the tortured prose that suffuses most of Ms. Hollick's narrative …. prose that leaves the battlefield strewn with thousands of innocent and irrelevant descriptive phrases where simple and direct depictions of action could better help the reader to understand what is happening and why it's important.

And

"The Kingmaking is boring. It's like watching mediocre actors in a familiar story; we know the archetypes and the basic plot, but it's all written in a way that Hollick seems to think it should be written rather than with any actual effort behind it.”

Well yes, I did write it as I thought it should be written… isn’t that what individual authors do? It would be boring if we all wrote the same way wouldn’t it?



And on my accuracy of history, apparently I have no knowledge of the period:

“Without sufficient knowledge of the historical period, very little awareness of the warrior culture of which she would write, possessing unrefined writing skills, but with an apparently strong desire to explore the love story of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (that's Guinevere to most of the rest of us), an inexperienced author bit off more than she was ready to chew. The result, unfortunately, was "The Kingmaking".

On the other hand:

“It was a rather fast read because it was action packed. I felt like this Arthur and Guinevere could really have existed. It's a novel set in the Dark Ages and remains faithful to the times, not the romanticized idea of King Arthur's Camelot. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Arthurian literature or historical fiction. It's not really a romance novel, as it has more battle and action than historical romance does. It's a highly enjoyable read.”

And

“Don't read this book (or any of the trilogy) expecting a tale of mystery, magic and Merlin. Rather a historian's view of what the real Arthur and Britain in the post-Roman, pre-Saxon age might have been like. This is a time when Rome has deserted the British and the English are only just arriving from 'Germany' bringing with them upheaval and a constant struggle for power. A time when 1000 soldiers is considered a major force and tribal and ethnic loyalties are constantly shifting. As in real life many people are looking to the past and the glory of Rome while others want to look to the future. Not as clear a distinction as it sounds. Dirt, death, tragedy and a nicely dispassionate view of life and death keeps the books rocking along even though they are quite substantial. I did manage to put it down but it did certainly keep me popping back as often as possible.”

A historian well versed in this period praised me in a review for the Historical Novel Society for my historical detail being superbly accurate, so I suppose the consensus of opinion is – reviews are not necessarily useful or helpful, because different readers have vastly different perspectives. Which is a good thing, because it would disastrous for Imaginative Fiction if all books - and the subsequent opinions of them - were all the same!



Meanwhile – if you’d like to add a comment about the Kingmaking (or any of my novels) onto Amazon, please do… as long as it’s a nice one LOL

My Amazon Author Page 

The Kingmaking available at an Amazon store near you: 
(US publisher Sourcebooks Inc)
(UK publisher Silverwood Books)
Originally published by William Heinemann. 



Full details of the Pendragon's Banner Trilogy HERE

soon to be published in German by Sadwolf

28 comments:

  1. There's one good thing about those reviews - they're so varied that I want to read this now to make up my own mind!

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    1. Yes - and thanks! :-) At least no one can accuse me of getting my friends to put good comments! LOL

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  2. I'm from the U.S. and love the Arthurian legends. BUT, I am always open to new interpretations. This is historical FICTION. I'm off to buy a copy right now!

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    1. Thank you Char... I think that is the wonderful thing about Arthur, there is SO much variation. I personally don't like the Medieval Tales, but love the more historical ones i.e. Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Stewart, but just because the Knights in Armour view is not to my taste, it would not prompt me to trash someone who does enjoy them!

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  3. I must be the rare American who prefers reading books about Arthur that are closer to what might have really been over the overly romantic fluff so often written about him. I still feel that your trilogy is one of the best I've ever read because it was so believable for me personally. I've spent a fair amount of time reading research into the Dark Ages, what the times were really like, and who the 'real' Arthur could have been...where those old tales might have originated...and so on. There was no magical Camelot and a bunch of chivalrous knights in medieval times - not one shred of truth to back those old legends up...but there are a LOT of people out there who refuse to see the real possibilities and understand the real history of Britain. Nothing you can do about those either...just like the whole argument for and against organized religion and those stories/beliefs (won't get started on that! LOL).

    I actually greatly admire you, and many of the writers I've come to know in recent years, for the way you manage the nasty comments from the 'know it all' types of the world. I don't think my skin is thick enough to be a writer!

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  4. What is it that spurs Americans to post reviews at a greater rate than the Brits?
    They certainly appear (from my experience) to buy more e-books. I know there are more of them numerically, but are they more computer savvy than the average Englishman.

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    1. I think e-books are easier for Americans because they often live a long way from bookstores, and Amazon can take several days to deliver. Teh beauty of an e-book is that you can obtain it instantly.

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  5. As a Christian and an American, I can tell you that first of all it looks as though a lot of these reviewers didn't read the blurb before reading the book, or they would have realized they weren't in for a fantasy-type novel. That is their problem.
    Second of all, wouldn't the real Arthur have been a pagan, or pretty close to it? What's the problem? There isn't one. Americans, and particularly very "religious" Americans are often self-righteous to the point of nausea.
    One of the things I have always admired about the UK was the deep-rooted sense of history; it seems we don't have alot of that here in the US.

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    1. IMHO Arthur was more likely to have been Christian. By the 5th/6thc the Britons and the Irish had been converted long before then.
      regards Paula

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    2. Even so, don't you think it still contained some Pagan elements? It was surely hard to let go of long-held beliefs and superstitions? Even now, I won't kill a cricket in the house, or walk under a ladder! LOL...

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    3. I do somewhat disagree with you Paula - Christianity had only become "legal" in 313 - just over 100 years before the Romans withdrew from Britain. Christianity had taken hold here in the Roman cities, yes (Canterbury, Bath, London - York) but the cities rapidly disintegrated during the 5th century (a ruinous London, for instance was thought by the English Saxons to have been built by giants)The ordinary people - "everyday country folk" probably took on board this new religion but carried on with the old as well - which is why, as Cynthia says, we still cross our fingers, touch wood etc. The Pagan beliefs never died out, ergo they were still followed. Add to that one of the contemprary writers of the time, the monk, Gildas, bemoaned the fact that Christian worship was being forgotten - he blasts certain leaders who have turned from God (including, obliquely - possibly - Arthur himself) So it is very possible that Arthur was NOT Christian at this time.

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    4. and apologies, I think there are a few typos & spelling errors in my answer above! :-/

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  6. Thanks for responding Cynthia - and I so agree with you! I've always made it quite clear that my version of the Arthur Tale is _not_ the traditional one, and that I have deliberately set out to make him a non-Chrsitain King (and yes my Arthur is more pagan, although actually, he hasn't any particular leanings) Most people in the 4th / 5th Century, I would think were half and half with their belief (apart from monks and nuns, and even then their view of Christianity was vastly different from ours!)
    I did get very upset several years ago when I received the rudest, foulest e-mail from an American student who accused my of this that and the other (including being an ignorant Brit!) because I had portrayed Arthur as non-Christian. The content was not exactly Christian-worded LOL.
    I welcome debate and discussion, but sadly, with the matter of Arthur the bigotry often tends to creep in... and not just from the Christian vioew, those who believe Arthur is a Druid Priest, a Sleeping Knight will not accept that he probably never even existed.
    On the other hand, these many diverse views of Arthur is what keeps the story alive. There is something about this guy that slams into the imagination and keeps him alive forever!

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    1. Although historically I would be inclined to say if he had lived he probably would have been Christian, however its your book, your story and you are entitled to portray him however you wish!Its fiction after all!

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  7. So true! I read a book years ago that convinced me the real Arthur was a Dark Ages Scottish warlord. I then asked some of my Scottish friends what they thought, sure they would side with me...Not so! Many of them said he had to be Welsh, others said Cornish...LOL...I tend to believe Arthur was based upon a real person, but who knows? Certainly not the Americans who claim a Brit doesn't know British history!

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    1. I certainly believe that Arthur was based on a real person - and I do think he was a West Country warlord - possibly some sort of post-Roman Governor. I have made him a 'King' - although I am well aware that is an English (Saxon) word and would not have been applied to a Romano-British warlord. King is a term that we, today, understand though.

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  8. So interesting (and sad) about the US pushback -- I wonder if Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon gets the same cranky negatives -- I adored how she really embraced the pagan-y-ness of the Arthurian myth in that book -- really blew my mind, actually -- and hearing your description of your book makes me especially eager to get it!

    Like you, I avoid the 5 star reviews, but I read 1 star reviews to cackle. In my own reviews, I try to be fair-minded when a book doesn't work for me and reflect that, because it really is personal taste -- and reading is such a personal experience, one's own biases etc shapes how we read.

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    1. I wrote The Kingmaking because of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon Audra - I enjoyed the read, but her Guinevere so irritated me! I just couldn't see Arthur taking such a limp lettuce as a wife. When I got to a passgae where she was having hysterics in a boat I threw the book across the room, declaring that Gwen was NOT like that. And resolved to do something about my passionate outburst by writing my own version.... my Gwenhwyfar is therefore very different to Ms Zimmer Bradley's!

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    2. Ooooh, interesting! I've never been a Gwen fan so books that make her the heroine/strong focus always challenge me -- I'm more sympathetic to Morgan/a -- but I really love it when authors challenge the representations I'm comfortable with! I'm really going to have to get your book now and see what the Gwen draw is! ;)

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    3. I made my Gwen a feisty red-head, who has a sword and knows how to use it.
      Her relationship with Arthur is tempestuous - they love each other deeply, but their opinions often clash...

      Of course, now I will be biting my nails while awaiting _your_ review! LOL

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  9. I am convinced, after years of reading reviews, that a reader's reaction at the end of a book has a lot to do with his or her expectations going in - if they think the book will be mediocre, actually reading it does not change that impression. Maybe I'm guilty of the same thing - I thought I would very much enjoy The Kingmaking and I did. Out of curiosity I looked at the reviews of Bernard Cornwell's Arthur novels, which also toy with the standard interpretation of the characters, and I read a lot less griping about that from his readers. It's the same phenomenon that led to Patrick O'Brian's novels being dismissed at first as warmed-over Hornblower and then later hailed as genious.

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  10. Thanks Jim - I do wonder also that women writers get different reviews from ale readers i.e. a male reader will assume that because he is a male writer Bernard Cornwell can write better battle scenes, whereas a woman can't.

    LOL re O'Bran v Hornblower... Hollick v Cornwall eh? I like the idea that maybe one day I'll be thought of as a genius!
    Seriously, as an author it IS frustrating that Bernard gets all the accolades while I don't even get looked at - especially as my Arthur trilogy came out before his, but that's life as an author isn't it? Maybe when I've written as many as he has things will be different (one can only hope!) The one lovely thing, Bernard also likes my books and has given me a fantastic endorsement for them. Thanks Bernard! (Oh and he admitted he is not very good at writing books that are set aboard ship, he found it too "confining". That's one up to me and thee then Jim! :-)

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  11. So,Helen, after all of this, I must say that I do believe reviews help. Any reader can tell a "troll" from an honest review (at least I think so...) I hate all this controversy that has sprung up. It takes so much of the joy out of reviewing. I say, never lose your passion for the written word, and all will be well!

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  12. Thank you Cynthia - the feedback for my question has been really helpful, although it was a great shame that the link I put to this post on a FB page immediately got hi-jacked by a couple of people who had missed the point of what I was writing/asking. They came screaming out of nowhere slamming me (and authors in general) for unfairly having a go at reviewers "authors should be thick skinned and take bad reviews on the chin" that sort of thing, and also completely denying that trolling exists. Well it does, and to be on the receiving end of the trolls who are nasty, spiteful, vicious people who deliberately post vile comments on forums/FB pages etc is horrid. I know, I've experienced it. It was a bit exasperating to have these people getting irate about something I hadn't mentioned! It makes you wonder if some people actually understand what they are reading - or do they deliberately misunderstand because they have an angry bee in their bonnet? Anyway, that could be a topic for someone else to discuss - I'm not pursuing it here, it'll attract the Trollies like sharks to blood!
    Thank you for all your comments - much apprciated!

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  13. I saw the Facebook discussion, and I have seen many others like it. I think there are a lot of people who need to back up and have another look at the whole issue. However, I appreciate what you were *trying* to discuss.

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  14. Thank you Cynthia. Someone did say that I was inviting trouble by even mentioning the topic of reviews and perhaps I shouldn't have posted this article.... but isn't that giving in to the bullies? I am asking a genuine question here because I am genuinely interested in any (useful) answers - should I not post my thoughts just in case those who get the wrong end of the stick might intervene? I was a bit astonished/taken aback at how quickly they appeared though (obviously my modest little posts do get read! LOL!) Still, I managed to wrestle the topic back to what I'd intended, so no harm done. (I hope!)

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  15. I rather like Charlotte Brontë's comment: "Too often do reviewers remind us of the mob of Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers gathered before 'the writing on the wall', unable to read the characters or make known the interpretation.”

    Supposedly G B Shaw once read a bad review of one of his plays, called the critic and said: "I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me.”

    Constructive critical input is not the same as a review. The former is useful.

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Helen